Song of the Day: The Fall “Cruiser’s Creek” (Mark E. Smith 1957-2018)
Mark E. Smith (frontman and sole permanent member of post-punk group The Fall) is one of the last musicians who one would think to feature on a wedding DJ website. His music was deeply alienating: Smith tended towards a highly caustic critique of late Capitalist society, presented amid a din of post-punk guitar music and delivered via the man’s iconic mumble or scream. By his own admission, he could: “clear a pub when I want to”. All in all, an acquired taste, then.
However, given his tragic death yesterday, it should be noted that Smith bore an outsized influence on 20th and 21st Century music. He remains an important figure to think about, and many a disaffected teenager or twenty-something found something that spoke deeply to them in the music of The Fall. Besides Smith’s music was rarely quite as grim as his harshest critics claimed it to be. Beneath all the gloom and misanthropy lurked a cunning and vicious sense of humor.
Mark E. Smith‘s career ran from the first version of The Fall‘s initial recordings in 1976: a remarkable 40 year stretch (including an incredible 31 studio LPs) for a group that never went out of their way to try to please audiences or really appeal to popular opinion. Named for the darkly existential Albert Camus novel of the same name, the group played mostly loud post-punk with a deeply philosophical, post-Marxist bent. At the center of the group, singing (or more likely screaming) his heart out was Smith. Often a prickly and difficult figure, the turnover of band members in The Fall is legendary. Despite the number of different musical styles and ideas over the years (both a function of shifting times and personnel), Smith‘s vision remained an oddly singular and unifying force across the group’s recordings.
While firmly in the punk/ post-punk musical cannon, with a tendency towards celebrating racket and noise, almost all The Fall records sound different. Despite this, they are all clearly identifiable as products from the mind of Mark E. Smith. The group was also always hyper-literary: referencing bits of literature or philosophical writings amid the din that it frequently kicked up. The Fall songs frequently referenced not just Camus, but also H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Vladimir Nabokov and Malcolm Lowry. In many ways, the biggest musical influences on the band were actually literary ones, the connective tissue seemingly being that all of the writers mentioned at times took a notably miserablist view of the humanity that mirrored Smith‘s own. This did not prevent The Fall from influencing legion of underground and indie groups, both in his native England but also in America. Indeed, its hard to imagine a world where Guided By Voices, Sonic Youth or Franz Ferdinand (to name but a few groups that The Fall clearly influenced) existed without The Fall coming first.
One of Smith‘s greatest moments was The Fall‘s take on The Kinks song “Victoria”. While Ray Davies probably intended the song as tongue-in-cheek celebration of British Empire, it took on whole other levels of irony when filtered through the otherwise caustically anti-Imperialist lens of Mark E. Smith (despite his infamous support for the Falklands War in 1982). That Smith opted to cover the song rather straight proved to be one of his greatest jokes. Interestingly, the cover was one of the few The Fall songs to chart (and was likely beloved by people that did not understand that the song was a send-up): a further irony that likely was not lost on Smith.
It seems wrong to provide a rundown of Smith‘s work. He was so emphatically unsentimental that in many ways, it would be a disservice to his legacy. Mark E. Smith and the ever rotating cast of musicians who would make up The Fall over the years require your own research. The band went through so many iterations that what works for me may be totally different from what works for you. What is important to remember is that Smith went down swinging. He released a bombastic new record in 2017 with his most recent iteration of The Fall, the well-reviewed New Facts Emerge, and played a series of gigs in support of it before having to cut his touring plans short due to ill health. I had hoped that we would still be enjoying his cantankerous presence for years to come and in some ways, in the grim political climate we live in, we arguably needed The Fall now more than ever.
RIP Mark E. Smith. You were one of a kind.